Friday, July 30, 2010

Leaving My Comforts Behind

Most of my days are filled with routines, some fun, some trivial and some difficult. Most days, I arise from my comfortable bed between 5:30 and 6 a.m. I wake up to a quiet house with a cool breeze blowing through open windows of our two-story condominium. I take a hot shower to help loosen up a body that feels the aches and pains of being 51, having had two discs fused in my neck in 1995, who has chronic bursitis in one shoulder and arthritis in most of my joints.

After I get out of the shower, I make my morning coffee by grinding fine Colombian beans, listening to it brew in my gourmet coffee maker, then add the requisite half-half – never the powdered cream or non-dairy creamer and milk only when my preferred creamer is empty.

I read the Bible near first light, pray, and read the morning newspaper – all over a steaming hot cup of coffee. As I read, a heating pad warmed in the microwave oven wraps around my neck or rests on my shoulder. Half an hour later, ice sits on the same spot if I am in pain.

Three weeks ago, I injured my right shoulder, my good one, by lifting a propane tank after competing in a chili cook-off at my church. Since then, I’ve been managing the pain through stretching, light lifting, oodles of Ibuprofen, heat and ice and prayer – something I’ve done more days than not since age 21 – and lots of prayer. If my shoulder doesn’t get better by Monday, I may not be able to fulfill my desire to work on reconstructing an orphanage in Leogane, Haiti. My team leaves tomorrow night and will arrive in Leogane sometime early Sunday afternoon in sweltering heat and humidity.

When I am in Leogane, all my items of comfort will be left behind. My bed may not be comfortable. The hotel we are staying in may or may not have air conditioning to battle the low 80s temperature we will face most nights during our stay. I will be working in 95-degree heat and 95-percent humidity during the day, so having air conditioning then is a moot point.

According to the Starbucks locater map, there are no franchises in Leogane. Drinking black coffee or coffee with the powdered cream is a very reasonable possibility. Although I brought one-time use ice and heat packs, they are meant for emergencies, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Or falling off a roof. I will continue to take 600 mg of Ibuprofen several times a day until I return from Haiti.

At least for me, pain always seems to be a pre-curser to going on short-term mission trips. Five years ago, when I went to Hackberry, La., severe back pain nearly forced me to cancel my trip. Then, the day before we were to leave, the pain miraculously disappeared and I was able to roof houses every day and carry heavy shingles up ladders to roofs. Amazing what prayer and God can do when you choose to serve God in some God-forsaken place.

I have asked friends to pray for my shoulder so that I can work hard on my trip. I come from Midwestern farm stock and a family with a strong work ethic. Not working hard is inconceivable. Haiti is not a vacation for me; it is work. In the past three weeks, I have gone from not being able to raise my right arm at all, to being able to rotate it fully with very little pain. That in itself is a miracle.

What I learn from times like this is that my life is totally in God’s hands. For three weeks, I have prayed for a complete healing of my shoulder, knowing full well that if God chooses not to heal me I may be switched to the team playing with and loving the 80-some orphans in our care. Maybe God has something to teach me in that area. I don’t know.

I do know that I believe God has called me to lead single men, remarried men and teenage boys to do construction on the mission field, so I have signed up to do construction in Leogane. I need to learn carpentry skills in order to lead men. God does not simply choose a man to lead and put him into circumstances with which he can’t lead. Didn’t David first slay a lion and a bear before facing Goliath on a one-on-one duel on the battlefield? When I went to Louisiana five years ago, I went with no roofing skills to speak of the first time, but left with the ability to roof a house three months later on my own, when I was a group leader. God prepared me.

Tomorrow, it would not surprise me to wake up with absolutely no pain in my shoulder. Or maybe Sunday, after sitting scrunched up on an airplane for eight hours, I’ll exit the plane, backpack slung over my shoulder and pulling my travel suitcase and realize something: the pain in my shoulder is gone.

We shall see. One never quite knows what to expect on mission trips. We go leaving our bodies in the able hands of the one who created us, a God who is loving and compassionate. Beyond the construction goals, we go down to Haiti to simply love on people who deeply need to feel love.

God willing, he will provide real cream from a cow for my coffee on Monday morning. Or at least milk -- but nonfat is out!

To see where Leogane is located, search this link (it's just east of Port-au-Prince):

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Memorizing Important Creole Phrases

Countdown: 2 days until I leave for Leogane, Haiti, where I will spend eight days helping my church rebuild an orphanage. During the day this week, I try to work and get things done, but it’s pretty hard: Haiti is on my mind.

In the past few days, I’m finishing up the final details before I depart with my team to Haiti. I am limited to a carry-on suitcase and backpack. I also will be checking-in a bag filled either with equipment for the mission or clothes for the children.

A carry-on, by definition of the airlines, must fit in the overhead storage compartments. I’m looking at the list of things that my church, Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California, told me to bring, and I need a bigger suitcase. Checking in a second bag involves cash, which I don’t have to donate to American Airlines.

Mind you, these items aren’t tourist stuff; they are things I need to work on the construction project. My suitcase will have a pair of swim trunks, but only because the ocean is nearby and just in case. The hotel we are staying in does not have a spa to be soaking in at night when we’re done working. The hotel doesn’t have a Web site to tell us about their amenities, but we’re told that not all rooms have air conditioning. I may or may not need mosquito netting. This is Haiti.

So I’ll be taking work boots, long pants, despite the 95-degree and 95 percent-humidity conditions, work gloves, safety glasses, a hat to shield my head from the burning sun, wool socks I purchased just for Haiti, and shirts that absorb the sweat better. I will have to tuck my shirt in, because that’s how those nasty mosquitoes reach your chest and back. We were told the mosquitoes are big enough to ride in some cases. If I’m lucky, the ones who pick me will be in training. Just in case, I have pocket Deet, 18 for the mosquitoes in training and 40 for larger fellows.

Then there are the things I’ll need for the redeye flight to Miami, the layover, and the final leg to Port-au-Prince. I’ll need a sleeping pill for the flight, water for the flight, a few snacks, and reading materials. I’m dressing in shorts for when I land in Haiti and the 95-95. I want to be cool when I land. Is it possible to stuff a cheeseburger into an already crammed backpack?

And then there is the list of Creole phrases given to us. I have yet to memorize any of the terms. A few of them are easy, because there is a similarity to French. “Bonjou” is “good morning,” “Bonswa” is “good afternoon” or “good evening.” “Wi” is “yes” and “non” is “no.”

Then there are the important terms. “Manje” means “to eat.” Maybe I should learn “Be careful of what you eat.” Naturally, I will remember “kwit-manje” because it means “to cook.” “Bwe” is “to drink.” “Mwengendjare,” means “I have diarrhea.” “Mwen anvi vonmi” means “I feel nauseated.” “Quick, where’s the nearest toilet” is not listed on the sheet. “Souple, ban mwen Kaopectate” means “Give me Kaopectate.” “Prese prese!” (“Hurry.”)

I looked, but I don’t see the phrase, “Jesus loves you.” I must find that out.

Now that I’m thinking about it, that’s my prayer request. Pray that I’ll never have to say “souple, ban mwen Kaopectate” while I’m in Haiti. If I never use that term, I’ll be happy.

At our team meeting last week, someone suggested playing Charades, because we may be playing a form of charades when we get down there and try to communicate with Haitians, who speak French and Creole. Do you think Haitians know what the pee-pee dance means? If I’m holding my stomach, and writhing in pain, do you think they’ll figure out what’s going on? I think I can work agony on my face.

I think I’ll keep my list of Creole phrases in my back pocket.

For more photos from Rose Duncan in Haiti, go to this link:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hearing the Call to Go to Haiti

In the spring, after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti on January 12, my church, Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California, talked about going down to help rebuild an orphanage we had come into contact with. On April 25, the church organized an informational meeting, and some 300 people filled our gymnasium. I was one of them.

Our mission was simple: “to lift up fellow Christians through relationships as we build, disciple, care for orphans and treat urgent medical issues.” Too, “we wanted to lift up the Haitian church” through the process. I wanted to go in the worst way and work on the construction team, one of four projects being undertaken. I heard God calling. Then I heard the cost: $1,200. Maybe not.

The construction team, or Nehemiah, would be in Leogane, about 20 miles (or 4 hours) east of Port-au-Prince. During the summer, the goal was to help rebuild an orphanage, a church and a medical clinic, as well as show the locals how to build 10-foot x 10-foot modular homes. Everything would be built to California code, not Haitian code, which is what caused the mess in the first place, from mostly watered-down cement that lacked supportive rebar.

That first meeting, they made it sound so warm and fuzzy. We would be staying in a hotel with no air conditioning (95 degrees, 95 percent humidity days is typical in summer). Mosquitoes big enough to ride. I’d need to get my first passport (something that had stopped me from previous mission trips). And shots, lots of shots, for such things as tetanus, hepatitis A and B, malaria, rabbies and pills for diarrhea. Fun times, this Haitian mission trip. On top of that, meals might be sporadic, so we were warned to bring energy bars that didn’t melt, beef jerky, nuts and a few extra bottles of water to tide us over. Just in case.

The Nehemiah team would be partnered with the Barnabas team, designated to work with the orphans, which were 30 at the time of the earthquake but now number closer to 80. What were once all girls are now a mix of boys and girls. That team was going down to do nothing but love on those kids who had lost one or both parents in the earthquake, or their parents gave them up because they no longer could feed them.

Just love them, as Jesus would love them. And build walls as strong as the fortified ones Nehemiah built around his beloved Jerusalem. (The other two teams were medical and discipleship in a tent city in another part of the country.)

A month ago, I sent out more than 60 letters and e-mails asking for financial and prayer support. Last week, I got a note from the church saying my trip had been funded, as it had to be because I knew I didn’t have anything to contribute.

But God knew how much money I had. He put me in the path of many friends who admired my courage for going. Truth is, many of those donors want to go but can’t for various reasons. Others can’t afford to help me and my teammates financially, but they’re willing to pray. All three are needed to make missions trips succeed.

This trip isn’t just about those orphans, either. So many short-term missionaries talk about clearly seeing God and hearing his voice in a ways they never had. I have friends who have given up the corporate world to serve God full-time because they heard God calling them in the field. I hear God telling me to take other men to foreign countries to build things, but I don’t have any carpentry skills to speak of, so I need a few trips to build those skills. Helps to have a little bit of credibility to your calling.

On Saturday night, my 17-member team meets in Pleasanton to pick up tools and donated clothes to load in an extra suit case that each member takes along with him (two carry-on and one check-in, filled with stuff to leave down there). Then we head to San Francisco International Airport to the redeye to Miami and then Port-au-Prince on Sunday.

Monday morning, the real “fun,” begins. I can’t wait to see what God has in store for my teammates and me.

Here’s how you can pray for me and my team members:

  • A safe journey to and from, especially while traveling the roads of Haiti, which are treacherous at best (hence, the four-hour, 20-mile trip).
  • That none of us gets sick from the food or water.
  • That none of us contract malaria from the massive mosquito population.
  • That the orphan team truly be able to love those children and let them see the love of Christ through us.
  • That we be able to build relationships with potential Haitian contractors. Part of our mission is to leave worthy contractors down there so that the Haitians can rebuild their own country.
  • That we help bring healing to a small part of a nation that badly needs healing.
  • And, for me, pray for healing in my right shoulder, which I threw out a couple of weeks ago carrying a propane tank at the chili cook-off I won. I know how to manage pain well, and I'm doing everything I can to reduce the pain and swelling.

Thanks again for your support. I’ll blog again when I return August 8.

For a look at photos from Rose Duncan with Cornerstone's Haiti mission, go this link:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Memorials Should Be a Celebration of Life

Patricia Maselli died on July 4 at the age of 53, leaving behind two adult children and 10 grandchildren. One of the things I appreciated hearing at her memorial yesterday was how much she was loved by her family. They talked about her living life to the fullest. “Spontaneous adventures” were mentioned by several people. One after another came up and shared funny stories about her, including several about her penchant for fast cars and fishing.

I laughed quietly when her son told a story about her meeting her dad as a teenager by racing and beating him on the streets of Fremont. I helped her purchase a car at an auction a few years ago, and she bought the one car I didn’t think she should buy. It was a cute, little supped-up Acura Integra that looked like a hot-rodder. Patricia lost me at the first light. Sadly for her, a few minutes later, I found her, pulled over on the freeway, her new purchase steaming from under the hood because of overheating.

Now it made sense why she wanted a fast car.

I knew Patricia from our serving together in Focus Singles Ministry in Livermore,California, for several years. I helped her move to her last residence a few years ago. The Patricia I knew lived a life full of life struggles and far too much physical pain. I did not know her as well as I thought.

Several people, including her pastor of several years at a church in nearby Fremont, spoke of Patricia’s boundless faith. It had the same energy she had for life. She lived her faith by serving others. With Focus, whatever needed done, Patricia would jump into with zeal. Like most single adults, she liked getting gussied up for our various events and kicking up her heals a little. She also served in Cornerstone’s women’s ministry.

After she died, I volunteered to do the food for her service. Memorials and funerals are particularly hard for single adults because there is no spouse to plan everything. In Patricia’s case, her children and extended family were around to help out where possible, but family shouldn't slave away on such a day.

I don’t have any experience in providing food for memorials. At my dad’s memorial five years ago, several women from his church provided a simple lunch, sort of a faux potluck. Having food around allows friends and family to mingle and reminisce after the service for a while. People need to process death by sharing stories with others. It’s part of the healing with need. How did this person’s life impact us, good or bad?

In biblical times, funerals lasted for several days, and food was an essential element of the gathering. When people died, their lives were celebrated. Food brings people together at a time when sharing is important to our psyches. Without the food, too many people would just walk out the door and put that person’s life behind them. God wants us to remember them, because that’s what grieving means. Funerals and memorials should bring tears and laughter together. If it’s just one or the other, something is missing.

Yesterday was a learning process for me on two accounts. I learned that there was more to Patricia’s life than what I knew, and I learned how to prepare food for 100 people who want to keep talking about a friend or family member’s life. Here are a few thoughts:

  • If money is an object, ask friends and family members to prepare a few dishes, potluck style. Fill an igloo full of ice and make lemonade. Set up a coffee pot and have on hand the various condiments. Use decaf for such events because no one needs more caffeine in the afternoon. Mini-waters were on hand.
  • Finger foods are an essential part of a memorial, because people want to walk around and talk with friends and family members. Think appetizers, vegetables, fruit, a few proteins, cheese and crackers and a multiple dessert items.
  • For $300, you can provide a fine spread for mourners that can bridge lunch and dinner. I had three helpers get the food and drinks ready. One did the drinks, two helped me prepare food and one helped me clean up. We spent three hours prepping and one hour cleaning up.
  • Here are a few items we did yesterday: cheese, salami and crackers; artichoke dip; nuts; various veggies with Ranch dressing; cold shrimp and spicy dip; finger sandwiches made with turkey and cheese; grapes; brownies and biscotti.

The best part was when things started winding down. We asked the family if we could send the left-over food with them, and they were elated. They were all going to one of their houses to continue reminiscing. When they got there, the abundance of food we gave them took the worry of cooking away from them for the evening. That gave them all more time to laugh and cry together as they remembered Patricia Maselli, who was laughing and crying along with them … from heaven above.

Friday, July 23, 2010

These Ribs Are Smokin' Hot

Two years ago, my crew and I went all out on a barbecue dinner for 180 people. I had someone on site at 4 a.m., stoking the fire. At 6, I arrived, and the wood was a beautiful gray charcoal at a temperature of about 200-225 F – perfect for smoking. By 7, the ribs were smokin’ hot. For the next 10 hours, we smoked the baby back ribs (pork) and used a wet mop combination of apple cider vinegar and lime juice to keep the ribs moist and juicy.

The night before, I put my magic spice rub on 40 racks of ribs, which was all we could fit in the smoker, then let them marinate for 12 hours. The key for cooking ribs is low (temperature) and slow (cooking time).

The people’s reviews that night were all positive. That night, I let people put on barbecue sauce on the dry ribs. Since then, I’ve changed my method to putting sauce on the last 15 minutes – in a pan if I’m doing them on my grill at home. That lets the sauce thicken and crunch up a bit.

If you’re doing ribs on your grill at home, you can do them in four hours at 250 degrees F. I barbecued three racks earlier in the week, and the racks easily split apart after 3 ½ hours, which is what I look for. Grab a rack on one end and twist; if they break apart, they’re done. Any longer than that, and they dry out, unless you’re mopping those puppies every 30 minutes or so. You can also wrap them in tin foil to keep them moist.

Here’s a few rib tips:

  • When you find a good producer of ribs, buy them at the same place every time. I think Costco produces really quality ribs, lean and meaty. Packages come with three racks for between $20 and $25, depending on the weight. That will comfortably feed 10-12 people 3-5 ribs each. Some people like pork (baby backs are my favorite), some like spare ribs, some like beef (Texas, not my favorite). Know what you like and stick with it.
  • When grilling (direct heat), don’t keep the ribs over the flame too long; they’ll blacken quickly, as mine did this week. Start with the meaty side down first (fat-side down first causes flare-ups), brown them a little (15-20 minutes), then flip (another 15-20 minutes). If they cook too fast, remove them from the heat to a cooler spot on the grill but keep the lid down.
  • Cooking ribs in the oven works just fine; you just won’t have the smoke ring that some people like. You can always add liquid smoke to your wet mop for added smokiness.
  • If you’re using a smoker, keep track of the temperature. Keep adding wood every hour or so, so that the wood is never blazing, which raises the temperature too high. It takes a little practice to handle the fire properly on a smoker, which uses indirect heat. Some barbecue chefs use charcoal briquets to light the wood. Smoke is what gives barbecue a grayish/purplish ring around the meat, which is a good thing.
  • I’m a big believer in putting dry rubs on meats and letting them sit for 8-12 hours. I don’t readily share my exact spice rub mixture, but I do tell people the secret: salt and pepper over night. If you look at champion barbecue chefs’ recipes, they all have some sort of mixture of red chili powder (perhaps even a little cayenne), salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder. Some chefs mix in cumin or paprika, or even a little sweetness with either brown sugar or molasses. Have fun. I have a few spices I always put in, but sometimes I play around a little.
  • Don’t put on barbecue sauce until the very end, 15-20 minutes. If there’s any sugar or tomato in the sauce, it will crystallize quickly and prematurely blacken the meat. Some people like sweet sauces, whereas others like spicy. You pick.
  • If you’re worried about your meat drying out, keep a wet mop on hand. I don’t really have a wet mop; I use a pastry brush and dabble on a little vinegar or line juice every 30 minutes.

When you read up on all the so-called experts, there’s a half a dozen things everyone does the same, and a dozen more that each chef swears is the best method. I’ve done ribs 10 different ways, and they all tasted pretty good. I’ve tasted one of my buddies’ ribs that aren’t marinated overnight, and they’re fantastic.

The next time you have a hankering for ribs, you can always order out, but the three racks I made earlier this week, plus potato salad, cole slaw and corn bread cost about $30 total to feed four that night, plus leftovers for days. At a restaurant, it would cost twice that.

This is a perfect meal to invite friends or neighbors over for a casual meal. Married couples can split up the cooking duties. If you’re single, make it a potluck where everyone brings a classic barbecue side dish.

A meal always tastes better when shared with others.

For my Barbecue Baby Back Ribs recipe, go to my Web site at

Follow me on Twitter at DougMeadFood at

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Feeding the Homeless: Watching God Work

Monday was a rough day for me. I was scheduled to cook a meal to the homeless for Serve the City at Vineyard Church in Livermore, California, meaning I’m in the Cornerstone Fellowship kitchen by 1 p.m. Last week, a fellow caterer asked me if I could work for him Monday from 6 a.m. to noon. I needed the money, so I said yes.

Suddenly, Monday was a 13-hour back-breaker, two days after a 12-hour day in the kitchen for Dinner for Six at Cornerstone. On top of that, I had done a poor job of recruiting volunteers for Serve the City, so I would be preparing a meal for 80 people by myself. Fortunately for me, I organize my time well in the kitchen, and I know exactly what needs to be done. I needed to have the food cooked by 4 p.m. and ready to transport by 4:15 for a 4:30 arrival at the church. Food would be served at 5.

I started volunteering with Serve the City in the spring, working with Sherry Leal, who coordinates the STC homeless meals. Sherry’s job is to recruit chefs, kitchen volunteers and to collect food donations. Her weekly budget is $150, and the group has fed as many as 150 people. During summers, the numbers go down because of the heat. Sherry and I often talk about the Loaves and Fishes affect of feeding the homeless. It is a miracle to feed 150 people for $1 apiece, but it happens every week. Churches that need a boost in faith need to consider feeding the homeless, because your faith increases when you see God’s provision over and over.

After Dinner for Six, I usually have leftovers, which go directly to Serve the City. Because I count “poorly,” the amount of food the church donates is pretty hefty some months. Perhaps, someday, God will give me the gift of counting, but until then we’re stuck with the donations.

On Sundays after D46, Sherry and I always talk about what’s available, from both ends. The plan is to cook a main entrée, often in casserole form, a vegetables, salad, bread, dessert and punch. Someone else handles dessert and mixing the punch. Thriftiness and a hardy, warm meal is the objective.

It was Mother Teresa who said, “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give the person what he or she needed.” It’s hard to hear the gospel when someone’s stomach is growling from hunger.”

My plan on Monday was to make beef enchilada casserole with ranch beans, because I knew we would have extra hamburger from Saturday night. Then, Sherry added two large turkey breasts, which would feed perhaps 50 people. I had three pans of what I thought were cole slaw left over from Saturday, but it turns out it was macaroni salad. Macaroni salad may be popular in Hawaii, but not so much in Mexico.

By 2 o’clock, I had four pots bubbling, two turkey breasts roasting in the oven, and I was sweating bullets. It was doubtful, I’d be ready by 4. I needed a little help. Next door to the kitchen is Parchments, the church’s coffee shop. I peaked in and saw bored employees, so I asked the manager, Chuck Highlund, if I could borrow one of them for 10 minutes to cut up corn tortillas for the enchilada casserole. His answer was “absolutely.” Miracle No. 1.

Miracle No. 2 was getting a church van to cart the food in cambers (food warmers) to Vineyard. I called Nancy de Matallana, the STC coordinator, and she finagled me a van.

Miracle No. 3 showed up at 3 p.m. in Dave Matas, the pastor of single adults at Cornerstone, who had just returned from a vacation in Oregon. We chatted for a while about his family vacation, then I asked him if he had 30 minutes to help me finish the enchilada casserole in order to get them in the oven for 20 minutes to melt the cheese and get the dish to above 140 degrees.

Miracle No. 4 came from the Parchments people washing my dishes while I took the food over to feed the hungry and needy. When I returned at 6, everything was washed. What a treat.

Cooking large meals comes down to timing and coordination. On my drive to church, I was praying for a miracle. I confessed to God that I had done a poor job of recruiting and planning, and asked God to cover my mistakes.

Over the years, I’ve cooked for dozens of meals such as Serve the City provides. Every single time, I am blessed to see God’s hand at work in ways I couldn’t have imagined before the day started. God needs his people to act on his behalf, so that he can do miracles in the hearts of those coming for help and food.

God needs you to help serve the lost. Today, commit to get connected to a food ministry that feeds the needy. Once a month is all God wants. Volunteering to serve others depens our faith in God, because we see God in action when our efforts aren’t enough.

If you have a story to share about working with a group such as Serve the City, email me and tell me your story in 100 words or less, and perhaps one day your story will appear in Food Parables.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Learning From Kitchen Disasters

Dinner was supposed to be served at 8 p.m. At 8:10, I was asked when the gourmet cheeseburgers would be on the serving line. “Five minutes,” I said. Then I heard one of my teenage servers say, “Ten minutes. They’ll be ready in 10 minutes.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.

At 8:15, I sent two trays of 20 “gourmet cheeseburgers” to feed the group of 140 single adults at Cornerstone Fellowship’s Dinner for Six on Saturday. Already on the line were chicken and cheddar sausages, Louisiana hot links, macaroni salad and cole slaw. To doll up the burgers, we had grilled onions and mushrooms. The three appetizers had been served up, and my crew was prepping strawberry shortcake for dessert a half hour later.

These weren’t your ordinary, everyday burger patties with a slice of American cheese thrown on at the last minute. These were a cross of four cheeses stuffed inside thick, juicy burgers. The test tastings were phenomenal. I know; I was there.

At 8:30, word began filtering back to me on the grill. “Some people are complaining their burgers are raw.” Ugh. Those are words a caterer doesn’t want to hear. By then, ensuing darkness had exacerbated the problem. The truth is, the burgers were between rare and medium rare, and a few I saw were even medium. It doesn’t matter; the paying customers were not happy.

The problem wasn’t that the burger flipper – me – didn’t know how to tell the difference between medium rare and medium well: The problem was that the grill, actually a smoker, wasn’t keeping its temperature much over 225 degrees. To grill burgers, the barbecue temperature should be between 350 and 400 degrees. Lower temperatures means a longer time on the grill. My tests the previous week, done at 300 degrees on my home grill because that’s the temperature I thought I’d get at the church smoker to from past experience, had the burgers finishing at roughly 20 minutes.

To make matters worse, someone at the church had forgotten to refill its four propane tanks. I was left with one half-full tank and three pretty empty tanks. Twice, the tanks ran out, which caused a temperature drop to under 150 degrees. Time is of the essence in such cases, because food that is cooking is meant to increase in temperature; a decrease is not good, and the local health department sends out “helpful warnings” against such practices. At one point, I found one measly piece of wood, some cardboard, but no kindling or newspaper. I tried getting the wood to burn, because it would increase the temperature to well over 300 degrees. No burn.

During one of the tank switches, the regulator hose was not tightening enough into the tank because the male piece was stripping, and I could hear a leak. One of my workers is a plumber during the week, and he had plumber’s tape in his truck. That fixed the leak. My hero.

Eventually, we started sending burgers back to the kitchen to cook for another 10 minutes in a 400-degree convection oven. That did the trick, but by then, the customers were groaning about having spent good money on lousy burgers. They were ready to listen to the evening’s entertainment, two clean comedians (no swearing, dirty or off-color jokes).

So how can such catastrophes be avoided? I did my homework, because even though I swore I’d never use the hunk o’ junk again, I probably will have to use it again. The answer is making sure at least two tanks are filled before hand, and having a few pieces of wood on hand – plus kindling and lighter fluid. Part of being a good cook is how you respond to kitchen mishaps. Sometimes, that means coming up with a better plan the next time out. Caterers who continue to make the same mistakes over and over will soon be out of business.

Alas, all was not lost. Every time I do Dinner for Six, I try a new recipe, with a few tests under my belt. My barbecue wings (done on the same, dastardly barbecue) were a huge hit. I know because every time we sent a plate out, they came back empty a minute later. All the workers raved about them. Maybe seeing a server with barbecue stains on his lips and shirt was a selling point to the crowd.

Oh, and by the way, as the last batch of burgers cooked, I looked down and could see a flicker of flame from the fireplace and the barbecue temperature was at 325. Nice timing.

To find my barbecued wings recipe, go to my Web site at Enjoy.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Caring for the needy among us

Five years ago, Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California came up with the idea for Rimz & Ribz, a combination car-show/barbecue activity for the family. The day was designed with one thing in mind: be an outreach to car buffs and barbecue nuts.

Aside from the cars, a house band played rock ‘n roll music, quality barbecue lunch was served at $10 per head, and this year offered the kickoff for a Chili Cookoff. The cooking contest actually got underway in May when our satellite church in Brentwood hosted its own Rimz & Ribz event, at which a Chili Cookoff and Rib Cookoff occurred. Brentwood extended the challenge to offer an opportunity to witness to a non-church goer in splitting the cookoff duties.

Foodies and car afficionados meander about the parking lot. As they walk around, a buzz occurs about how active Cornerstone is in the community and worldwide. To wit:

• On Mondays, Serve the City serves up 100 meals to the homeless at a partner church, the Vineyard, in Livermore. Some 20 volunteers dole out the food and build relationships with those coming through the doors. Clothing is also available.

• Throughout the month, the church collects good to distribute to the needy in our community. On the second Saturday of the month, 40 volunteers meet in Vineyard’s parking lot to distribute upwards of 70 boxes to needy families. Fresh eggs, flour, sugar, tortillas, bread, potatoes, canned goods, diapers and toiletries go out to families.

• Cornerstone just started giving English lessons to Latinos to help them improve their chances of landing a job.

• Cornerstone supports a growing Rohi orphanage in the slums of Nakuru, Kenya, a town of 800,000. The orphanage provides food, clothing and an education.

• Our church partners with Children’s Water Foundation and Meaningful Life International to dig fresh-water wells in Ghana, so that villages can survive and thrive. Fresh water is essential to life in sub-Sahara Africa.

• More than 300 Cornerstone people are going to devastated Haiti this summer as part of a short-term mission. Short-term missionaries spend eight days rebuilding an orphanage, sharing God’s word in a tent city, caring for orphans and healing people through medicine.

You get the point. I go to Cornerstone because I believe in its mission to care for the needy, in the midst of our own community and worldwide where we think we can make a difference by sharing God’s love for others.

Jesus gave us the command to care for the needy among us in Matthew 25:40: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

What’s my part? I cook for that homeless meal once a month, my wife and I help with the food distribution every other month and I’m on the construction team going to Haiti, leaving July 31. Plus, I write and teach about using good food to share God’s love.

These are things I believe in because Jesus said it was important for us, his followers, to care for those in need. How do we share the gospel to people whose stomach’s are growling because of hunger? How do we share God’s love for someone who is shivering because she doesn’t own a coat?

This post is meant to encourage you to get involved. Although I won Saturday’s Chili Cookoff, I entered so that I could share the importance of caring for others, perhaps through food. Everyone has some kind of gift to share with others. Stop making excuses. Just do it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who would be the 2010 Chili King or Queen?

Over the years, I’ve watched a handful of cooking contests and laughed at the nervous contestants running around trying to get their food just the way they want it for the judges. Sometimes, it’s funny, sometimes I’m practically in tears when I see accidents derail potential winners. I’ve done the same thing on catering jobs, and it ain’t funny when it happens to you.

The good thing about planning ahead and arriving at 6 a.m. is that at 10:30, 15 minutes before the judging was to begin, I wasn’t sweating bullets and running around like a chicken with his head cut off. All was calm and serene at my cooking booth at the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili Cookoff at Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California on July 10.

Those last 15 minutes, I spent perusing the ball scores and sipping on iced tea, pinky up. I was happy with my taste test at 10:30, so I was done adding spices. I kept hoping my chili would thicken up as it cooked, but it just wasn’t cooperating. Bad chili.

To thicken it, I added three separate roux’s, a mixture of flour and oil, but adding any more meant a potential pasty taste. Not good. The only way for it to thicken up was to cook it down over heat. The flavor kept enhancing, but it also broke up my half-inch pieces of chuck steak. It was getting thicker, but for the wrong reasons.

By that time, I had accepted that I had made a fatal mistake in my plans, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Maybe that’s why people on those TV contests are panicking: They realize their product isn’t winning, and they might even start over halfway through the contest. Me? I thought that was my fatal flaw, because texture is one of the judging elements.

My flaw was that my test didn’t match my contest recipe. My tests included beans, but in searching the recipes of past contest winners, I noticed no one used beans. For the contest, I didn’t change the amount of liquid to go into the recipe. Instead of the beans helping thicken up the chili, mine was runny.

As 10:45 neared, the contestants were told to prepare their chili for the patrons to come and try all the chilies, then pick their favorite on a judging card. Before that happened, I set aside the best of my chili in another, covered pot for the sequestered judging panel an hour later.

For $2, each patron – who came to check out the 100-plus cars and to eat a $10 barbecue lunch – received seven little paper cups and plastic spoons to try each chili, then pick one to come back to the one he liked best. Because my beef had broken up, I carefully doled out 3-4 chunks, then added a little chili juice. I felt like such a cheapskate. I kept waiting for somebody to scold me. “Come on: Where’s the beef?”

Slowly, comments started to come back to me that my chili was the best, a pleasant surprise because I thought I had blown it. I knew my chili had good flavor, but it had flaws. One by one, patrons came back to get another cup o’ chili.

Toward the end of the first judging, my mongo pot of chili was quickly dwindling. The contest told us to provide 18 quarts – that’s 4 ½ gallons, and I think I had 4 gallons in my 10 gallon pot. “Please Lord, let your humble servant have enough chili to finish the contest.” I think that was from the Psalms, chapter 151.

And the Lord blessed me, every so minutely. I think I had two quarts left of chili juice, sans meat, at the end. That was going home with me. All I’d had of my own concoction was perhaps 20 itty bitty teaspoonfuls for tastings.

After the initial judging ended, we had 15 minutes to prepare our judging packages. For me, all that meant was getting my chili boiling for five minutes, then putting it in the container and taking it to the judges.

Unlike the judging you see on TV, no one was running around frantically at this judging. Maybe it’s because our winner’s checks were only $50 for the patron judging and $150 for the official judging, whereas on TV, some of those contests have multi-thousand dollar prizes.

While we waited, I cleaned up. My station returned to its containers and into my car for the return drive home. (Actually, I had to drive to Pleasanton for a three-hour meeting for a mission trip I’m making to Haiti at the end of July.) I just wanted to go home. I was justifiably pooped after getting up at 4.

Thirty minutes later, I was warned they were ready to announce the winners. No butterflies in my stomach, no fingers crossed. I wasn’t praying for victory. I had fun, and that was my number 1 goal. I was sitting with a friend talking about the events of the day.

Then they announced me as the winner. It took me all of 10 seconds to get to where the announcer was standing, and by the time I got there, he had moved on to the next gift certificate winner. I looked around, dumbfounded. Is this it? I’m the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili Cookoff King, and this is all I get?

So I headed back to my table, head down. Then the coordinator cornered me. “You won both judging categories, which means $200. We’ll send you a check. Thanks.”

So, that’s it. I am officially the Chili King of North Canyons Parkway. Next year, I hope to defend my crown. And though I didn’t win a trophy to add to my second-place tamale contest trophy from 2004, I plan to get a gold tiara with purple lettering and wear it to church for the next month or two. Hey, I earned it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Working hard to be the next Chili King

When I arrived in the Cornerstone Parking lot Saturday in Livermore, California, it was 5:55 a.m. – five minutes before the allotted start time. Fear immediately set in. I was the only one in the parking lot. Had I come on the wrong Saturday? After a few minutes of searching, I found the set-up guy. What a relief. Because I was first, I got one of the church’s two canopies, so I would be covered all morning from the blazing sun.

I wanted to use every minute of the 4 hours, 45 minutes allotted to us, with a 6 a.m. start. For me to become the 2010 Rimz & Ribz Chili King, it would mean lots of hard work, including testing my recipe and fine-tuning it. On Friday, I did all my shopping, cut up my chuck steak into half-inch pieces and began the 18-hour marinade in my special dry-spice rub. I have a travel container on wheels that I use for such events so I don’t have to break my back carrying heavy loads. I had an ice chest on the ready. I borrowed a 5-foot long, three-burner propane camp stove, plus a 10-gallon pot for the chili to simmer in.

The recipe I chose was an authentic (and red) recipe straight from the Chile Queens of San Antonio, Texas in the late 1800s, where the original chile (Spanish speakers use an e at the end, whereas English speakers use the i) came from. The recipe I came up with meant more work, because 60 dry chile pods had to be soaked for an hour in boiling water. The ultimate flavor and maroon color I was seeking came from using three different kinds of chiles: New Mexicos, anchos and mulatos. Chile purees can be bitter, but I countered that with sugar and roasting sweet peppers to throw into the mix.

I looked at past winners of the International Chili Society competitions, whose rules we used. Lots of ground beef and powdered spices. I’m more about using fresh ingredients whenever possible. Because of the time restrictions, I used canned tomatoes instead of roasting them on the grill, my preference. Beans were nixed because the last 10 ICS national titlists didn’t use them.

By 6:30, I had my water boiling to soak the chiles and the beef frying up in the mongo pot. After extracting all the beef and oil, I added a cup of red wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Those leftover yum-yums are great flavor enhancers.

I used dumps (such as pureed tomatoes, sautéed onions and roasted garlic in tomato paste and pureed roasted sweet peppers) to enhance the flavor. Instead of water, I simmered the beef in a combination of beef and chicken broth. It was two hours before I had the chile puree ready. After the pods had been soaked, the stems and as many seeds as possible were removed, then pureed with fresh water in a blender for 30 seconds. After tasting, I added a little sugar to offset the bitterness.

After two hours of work, I had all the ingredients in the pot. All those amazing flavors were being melded into what I hoped would be the winning chili. Every 30 minutes, I would do a taste test, then add spices. By that time, I’m down to a combination chili powder that’s fairly mild, ground cumin for a smoky flavor, kosher salt and ground pepper, about a tablespoon of each at a time until I found the mellow heat level I wanted. I did not want a hot chili that burned people’s mouths when they tasted it. That’s lunacy. I want my cooking to be remembered for its fantastic flavors, not for packing a punch.

By 9:30 and three hours of hard work, I was virtually done. For the next hour, I rested a little, drank some cold water, stirred the pot to look like I knew what I was doing and added spices occasionally.

Now, it came down to waiting on the judges and the people, each of whom would vote on the six entrants in two different categories. Stick around and find out who would be the Rimz & Ribz 2010 Chili King or Queen.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Will it be green chili or red?

Tomorrow, I’m entered in a Chili Cookoff at Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, California. I spent half of today prepping for the big event. A couple of weeks ago, I ran tests on my recipe. Then I read the rules and realized I didn’t have to do the traditional red chili recipe: I could use my famous green chile verde.

So which one will I cook? To find out, tune in to Food Network tonight when I divulge whether I’m cooking red or green chili. I think the world deserves to know which chile I’m cooking. Proceeds go to the Starving Journalists Fund.

Have you noticed I seem to be confused about the spelling of chile/chili? That’s because it’s spelled with the e in all Latin countries. American journalists long ago changed the spelling to the English version. I still spell it chiles when I’m referring to the hot little vegetables that spice up so much of my favorite Mexican foods. I spell it with an i when making the traditional red sauced beef or pork.

Chili originated in San Antonio, Texas, back in the 1800s when chile queens sold their stews in the evening to the locals, businessmen and pimps, according to Robb Walsh in “The Tex-Mex Cookbook (Broadway Books, 2004). The red stew gained prominence in the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago at this “world’s fair.” The Texas exhibit recreated a typical chili stand and sold Texas chili con carne to fair-goers. Texans didn’t originally add beans to their chili. I grew up eating Chile Colorado in Arizona, and it’s always been one of my favorites.

Chile or chile hasn’t always been popular among Mexicans. Back in the 1800s, affluent Mexico City residents considered beans, chiles, corn tortillas and tamales as “low-class street foods. Chile’s flavor was considered uniquely “un-Mexican” (Walsh). Yeah, but it sure does taste good.

Anyway, my day is shot. I have to abide by certain rules, namely cooking everything on-site tomorrow. About all I could do today was go shopping, cut up my meat and season it ahead of time. Now I know why everybody in chili contests seem to use hamburger in their dishes. I spent two hours cutting up the chuck steak I purchased. Next time, I’m going with lean ground chuck to avoid the sore hands.

I’m all set for tomorrow. I plan to load my car at 5 a.m. and drive to the church, so I can begin cooking at 6 a.m., the designated start time. By 10:45, I must give a sample (a big one) to the judges. I have to provide 18 quarts of chili for the official judging and the Rimz & Ribz patrons’ judging. I borrowed a three-burner propane stove so I don’t have to use my two-burner camp stove, which just ain’t big enough to make my grande Texas chili in time.

Come on down and check out the cars and come visit me while I’m sweatin’ away.

Here’s a link to the event:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stories About Food and Faith

Food should be fun. Food should be shared with friends and family. Food should be about feeding those who are hungry. I believe all those things should combine with our faith in God, because he is the creator of us and the food we eat. That’s what this blog is about. I want to tell you my stories about food and how I became the person I am.

I grew up on a farm in Arizona, surrounded by golden wheat stocks, crisp lettuce, sweet cantaloupe and thousands and thousands of cattle. My brother and I used to fish for catfish on the Colorado River a mile from my house. My first memories of cooking was of my grandmother and her fried chicken. I fell in love with Mexican food because the farm I grew up on was 30 miles from the Mexican border, and most of my dad’s laborers came from south of the border. Those guys used to bring the most scrumptious little burritos and sell them to us gringos for 50 cents apiece. When I got to college, I was the only one of my four roommates who could cook. I quickly found out that girls would pay for the food if I cooked on Friday nights.

Then cooking just sort of took a hiatus for 10 years after college while I focused on my newspaper journalism career. After my divorce in 1994, cooking became a hobby again. I baked at 1 a.m. when I got home from work. I started cooking healthy meals for my son, so he wouldn’t have to eat from box mixes and frozen junk. In the singles ministries I led in various churches, potlucks became a regular part of our gatherings. On campouts with single-parent families, we kept chili or stew hot on the fire, ready to feed families as they arrived. While mom and the kids chowed down, the guys would pitch their tent and make them feel at home for the weekend.

I started catering in 2004 with “Awesome Salsa & Guacamole,” mostly to make ends meet as a single dad. My son, one of his buddies and me would work a 10-foot x 10-foot screened area at art and wine festivals on weekends. I got to write about some of those adventures through a regular column in the local newspaper. My church started asking me to cater dinners. I wasn’t much with a hammer and nail on those roofing missions to Hackberry, La., but I sure could feed the troops some mighty fine grub. I even met my wife through food; she attended a dinner I helped cook at my church. Now we work together to cater that same monthly dinner.

Along the way, I began to see that food was a gift from God, given to us to, not only enjoy, but to relate to each other. In the Old Testament, the Israelites called their gatherings “feasts” or “festivals.” In the New Testament, Jesus seems to feel pretty comfortable slipping off his dusty sandals and eating a hardy meal every night with either saints or sinners – or both. He seemed rather irritated that his mom dragged him away from his friends to turn water into wine – the best wine. The last gathering with his disciples was over coal-baked fish on the beach for one last meal with his buddies. Sounds like he was having fun.

The Bible uses food countless times as metaphors for life. The Israelites ate manna falling from the sky. Fishermen, shepherds and farmers played key roles in biblical stories because they were simple and hard-working. The early sign of Christians was that of a fish. Jesus himself said, “I am the bread of life.” Sure seems to me that God gave us food to send us a few messages.

Food wasn’t meant to be bland, or else he wouldn’t have given us salt and dozens of other spices mentioned in the Bible to “flavor” food. He wants us to experience life abundantly. Get my point? Every time I cook, I see God, smell God, taste God and sense his presence as I cook, whether on my backyard barbecue, in my church’s kitchen or on a mission somewhere in the world.

Join me on this journey about faith, family, friends, feeding the hungry and having fun – all tied together through this wonderful thing we call food.

On Saturday, I'll be participating in a Chili Cookoff. Come visit me. You can find the necessary info at this link: